Prehistory of Southwestern Virginia

Southwestern Virginia is commonly included as part of the Southeastern culture area and was the location of prehistoric aboriginal groups’ settlements, sharing “many broad cultural and social similarities” (Hudson 1976:10) with other groups located in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Florida and Alabama. The archaeological evidence collected from southwestern Virginia, including Lee County, suggests a diverse and complicated prehistory estimated to begin around 13,000 B.C (Bense 1994:8). The prehistory of the southeastern United States has been divided into four main periods prior to European contact. Table 1 lists these cultural stages and attributes and cites specific information related directly to Lee County.

The Paleoindian period (Table 1) (13,000 - 8,000 B.C.), was inhabited by mobile bands that used distinctive points to hunt large game which are now extinct (Hudson 1976:39). During the Archaic period (8,000 - 1,000 B.C.) native groups, still organized as bands, transitioned from hunting large game to a more generalized foraging economy. This new economy was slow to develop, and focused on deer, small mammals and wild plants (Hudson 1976:51-52). Increasingly efficient hunting techniques and a plentiful environment led to increased population and eventually plant domestication which ultimately led to a changed economy during the Woodland period (Hudson 1976:54).

Table 1Cultural Stages of Southeastern Indians Lee County

(adapted from Bense 1994)

Cultural Periods




Material Culture/ Technology

Lee County Context



13,000 - 8,000 B.C.


  •  Mobile bands
  • Hunting and gathering



  • points Lanceolate


  • Occupation of lower Cumberland Floodplains


8,000 - 1,000 B.C.


  • Bands
  • Expansion of settlements and base camps


  • Notched and stemmed triangular stone points
  • Containers of stone and pottery
  • Ground and polished stone artifacts




1,000 B.C. - A.D. 1,000


  • Rise of social inequality and status changes
  • Villages
  • Horticulture and Hunting/Gathering
  • Spread of pottery production
  • Horticulture
  • Northern Pottery Tradition: Fine and heavy cord-marked pottery





A.D. 1,000 -1,500


  • Chiefdoms
  • Intensive agriculture
  • Hierarchy
  • Long distance trade
  • Shell-tempered pottery
  • Major socio-political change
  • Maize agriculture
  • Riverine Settlements
  • Closest chiefdoms were Pisgah and Dallas
  • Carter Robinson Mound
  • Ely Mound

During the Woodland period (1,000 B.C. - A.D. 1,000) native populations increased. Tribal societies emerged, and with them came the development of sedentary village life. During this period, pottery became widespread, horticulture developed, and elaborate mortuary rituals were practiced (Hudson 1976:56). Trade networks also developed and became an important part of the Woodland period. The following Mississippian period (A.D. 1,000 - 1,500) saw a sharp increase in population size and the emergence of chiefdoms. Large sites such as Cahokia in St. Louis, Missouri and Moundville, Alabama became areas of complex ceremonial and cultural centers.  The Mississippian period is defined by its development of centralized political structure, agriculture with hierarchical leadership, and large-scale hunting and gathering supplemented by extensive trade (Hudson 1976:95-96). 

Starting with the 1539 expedition of Hernando De Soto, the culture of the Southeastern Indians greatly changed with the advent of European contact. Over the following 300 years of contact and systematic colonization, native groups were negatively affected by disease and native slavery and were displaced from their lands (Hudson 1976:10). By the time Lee County was first explored in the mid-1700s, native groups like the Cherokee and Shawnee could claim the area as ancestral land but few groups appear to have inhabited the county at that time (Brown 1937:507).

© 2017

Martha Grace Lowry Mize